Park Service Works to Build Falcon Populations in WV


Peregrine falcons are among the fiercest flyers of all raptors.    What they lack in size and stature is more than compensated in their agility of flight and deadly pursuit speed when diving for prey.

"They’re the fastest bird in existence, they’ve been clocked at over 260 miles an hour in a dive,” said Greg Phillips of the National Park Service. "They’re very impressive, they’re the ultimate hunting bird."

Years of DDT contamination decimated the nesting success of all birds of prey, but it struck falcons the hardest.   At one point, the birds were literally extinct east of the Mississippi River.   Improvements in the environment and efforts by conservationists have given the peregrine falcon a solid footing for a comeback.

The National Park Service is involved in the effort to bring nesting populations of the falcons in West Virginia.   A five-year transplant program is into its third year in West Virginia.   The birds have repopulated the eastern seaboard, but biologists are finding their skills are lacking and their nesting instincts are blunted by modernization.

"The birds that we’re releasing all came from Virginia where peregrines are nesting mostly under highway bridges and in some cases in coastal boxes," said Phillips.  "But the survival rate isn’t that good."

The birds hatched in an urban setting are often killed by cars or crash into the Chesapeake Bay and drown as they learn to fly.   The mortality rate in the Tidewater is around 90-percent.   Phillips says their hope is to establish wild, nesting populations in West Virginia’s New River Gorge where their survival instincts will better serve their needs.

"Young birds are captured and transported here where we take them to a sight on the cliff and place them in a box.  They are fed and acclimatized to the area," explained Phillips.

The boxes are open-ended and allow the young birds a view of the gorge and the cliff.  Falcons are tethered to the boxes for a nearly two weeks and fed a steady diet of vitamin-enriched quail.    Soon the falcons are released, but continue feeding at the boxes for several more weeks.  NPS officials wean them from the food gradually in an effort to encourage natural hunting instincts.

"The goal is as we release more and more birds in southern West Virginia, some of them will return and end up nesting in this vicinity," Phillips said. "They were completely extinct east of the Mississippi, so they have been recovering somewhat, but there’s still not a lot that are nesting in natural circumstances.   The goal is to try and get a stable population inland."

It’s unknown if the peregrines are a native species in West Virginia.   Phillips says they could have been, but nobody ever bothered to document their existence.   Even if they were not native, biologists agree the terrain and habitat of West Virginia’s New River Gorge is perfectly suited for them to thrive. 

The reintroduction program is monitored by volunteer observers who document sightings of the falcons in the same manner as the documentation of bald eagle sightings.   Many eagle observers have also added the transplanted falcons to their watch list.

"They were probably the species most severely impacted by DDT," said Phillips. "The fact they are even here at all is pretty amazing."


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